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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Education Opinion

Principals: 5 Ways to Create a More Inclusive School Climate

By Peter DeWitt — September 19, 2014 5 min read

School climate comes down to a few important elements. Engagement, Empowerment (and autonomy), Inclusivity (and equity), and Environment. The list may be easy to come up with, but the work to create a positive and inclusive school climate is hard. It takes work, and one conversation at a time can either help make deposits in the emotional bank account of staff (Covey) or create a series of withdrawals.

Sean Slade (ASCD Whole Child) and I recently wrote an arias for ASCD called School Climate Change: How Do I Build a Positive Environment for Learning? We both are members of the National School Climate Council, and believe that in order to increase student academic growth, as well as social emotional growth, school leaders have to start with the climate of their school.

In School Climate Change, Sean wrote,

A positive school environment is one that is welcoming; it’s one where staff, students and parents work together. It’s where the school leaders know many of the students’ names, and people smile instead of frown.” The last part sounds a bit silly doesn’t it, but it does add to the overall climate. Have you walked around a school where most of the people are not smiling? Not everyone seems to enjoy their time spent in school...even the people that work there.

There are five simple steps leaders can take to improve the climate of their school. They are not written in any particular order, because they can all have a massive positive influence. They are:

1. Get out of your office - Seriously, it sounds easy but it’s not. Leaders get caught up in phone calls, e-mails and other paper work that seems to act as an anchor to their desk. A few principals from California recently wrote a guest blog on the topic, and used the hashtag #NoOfficeDay. The response was amazing. Leaders were Tweeting, e-mailing and possibly doing virtual high 5’s on Voxer.

In all seriousness, getting out of the office is vitally important. It just feels as though leaders are looking for permission to leave the office behind. So here are a few suggestions on how to spend the non-office time:


  • Morning/Afternoon Ambassador - No matter what level of students you work with, be there to greet them off the bus. As a former elementary school principal, I needed to see students bright and early as much as they needed to see me and know I was there. They could give me a hug, ask if they could visit the office (true! They wanted to visit me!) or just say hi and be recognized. Saying goodbye every afternoon is just as important.
  • Visit classrooms daily - Leaders always hear they need to be visible. Step it up a notch! Leaders need to be more than visible. They need to be engaged in the classroom experience. See what students are doing, watch them in their element, and let them know you care more about learning than you do about discipline and following rules.
  • Pay attention to the main office - A negative secretary can sink your school climate because they are the first people visitors see. My former secretary (She is still there!) Donna Nikles was a gift. Students loved her almost as much as she loved them. Parents wanted to talk with her, and she knew just as much about the school as I did...ok, maybe a bit more. A great secretary like Donna enhances the school climate by making the office environment welcoming and fun.

2. Have authentic conversations - I have seen too many leaders walk in and deliver the message they think is important without trying to engage in dialogue. For them, it was all about monologue. Listen...really listen to students, staff and parents. You may not be able to always meet their needs, but listen more than you talk. That alone will be a huge challenge for some administrators!

3. Encourage student voice - I’ve learned a lot from Russell Quaglia, who is an authority on student voice. Russ says that students use their voice in numerous ways, and sometimes it doesn’t involve talking. They show us their “voice” through their body language, and we can learn a lot from them. Some school leaders think that if they send our a student survey once a year they are engaging in student voice. They’re not! A survey is one piece of a much larger puzzle.

Get out and listen to students, have student groups, and create structures so that students not only feel like they have a voice, but actually do have a voice. There are students who leave school ever day without even talking to one peer. That shouldn’t be happening. Imagine the greatness we are missing because some students don’t feel like they can talk in school.

4. Engage with parents - Making phone calls, standing in the front of the building as parents are dropping their children off at school are just some of the ways leaders can engage with parents before the first bell rings. Go deeper than just sending home a newsletter many parents may not read. Make the newsletter one page and then start flipping your parent communication. Done correctly it can increase dialogue, cut down on monologue, and open up the school walls in a whole new way.

5. Flip your Faculty Meetings - Same goes for faculty meetings. Leaders need to flip the information ahead of time so that they go deeper into a topic with staff. That topic needs to be something the leader and staff agreed upon and buy into...or not everyone will watch it. Engage with staff at the faculty meeting. Too many leaders want to walk in, deliver information and walk out. Stop the madness! Bring in topics, and discuss, debate and dissect them. Flipping that information out ahead of time will help staff be less likely to FLIP OUT at the meeting.

In the End

Trust is key. A leader who doesn’t build trust with their staff, students and parents is sunk because the school climate will never recover. If the staff and students feel safe to take risks, they will cover topics and have conversations that will broaden the knowledge of everyone in the school. They will cover curriculum and have debates, and they will engage students in awesome ways.

DeWitt, Peter & Sean Slade (2014) School Climate Change: How Do I Build a Positive Environment for Learning? ASCD Arias.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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